Monday, 10 April 2017

Main line electrification blues

It was not a good day to be on the trains. Not the worst of days: Cheltenham racegoers and the British weather have produced worse delays for me, but there was an irritating slowness about the line between London and home.  However, delays enabled me to read a small book; basically an essay in book form rather than a book. This book had not found its way into the pile at home marked, "for Oxfam".  It was a book the dear departed had said I must read: I never did, until now.

It is brilliant. It was written in 2000 by the great military historian, Michael Howard.  It is called The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order. This masterful essay explores Western society from 800 through to 2000 through its warcraft and ideas of "peace". It is timely and at times felt chillingly prescient.  I am a person of sympathies rather than an adherent to a particular ideology. It deals even-handedly with all the secular agendas: liberal, nationalist and conservative and the author has a thorough grasp on how technology shapes warfare more than ideology does. It is a book that suits me, though my sympathies are very different from the author's. He is a child of the Enlightenment with considerable fondness for Kant and Non-conformism.

The title of the book is a quote from the 19th Century jurist Sir Henry Maine: War appears to be as old as mankind but peace is a modern invention.

The Enlightenment did seem to produce the concept of peace as something to be achievable through the human project: the great secular myth that humans decoupled from their Creator can do any good at all.  However, neither can theocracies achieve the peace that their religious foundations have at their root.  "Peace" is a myth, and whilst the author does not reach this conclusion, nothing in the book dissuaded me of the truth of this fact. The peace that is to me a myth is the peace that to quote Howard comes "from the forethought of rational human beings who had taken matters into their own hands" and is the "visualisation of a social order from which war had been abolished". It is a concept inherent in Theocracies, Democracies and Totalitarian States, Caliphates and the UN (as well as wretched hippies and the whole dismal peace movement). It needs an awful lot of war (of the most disproportionate and least just kind), slaughter and suffering to maintain its delusion.

So why am I writing this?  I am writing as a Catholic. I am writing in Holy Week.  I am thinking out loud about the madness in the daily newsfeeds. I am thinking about peace and what it really looks like.  It looks like the pierced heart of the Mother of God, it looks like Our Lord mocked and crowned with thorns.  Peace is the absence of sin, not and achievable state of human cooperation/subjugation. Peace can be found in the midst of conflict, it is to be nurtured in our hearts be we priests, warriors, merchants, labourers or useless Physics teachers. God's grace is sufficient for us to find it. God's victory is won. It is a crime not to seek it.

That most gloriously illiberal quote of Newman's springs to mind:  The Catholic Church, holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse. 

It is there that peace is found, and nobody seems that willing to contemplate its profound and uncomfortable significance.

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